When personal agendas become more important than the team and the overarching mission’s success, performance suffers and failure ensues.” – Jocko Willink

Reading through a recent article concerning the alleged demise of Garry Reid, a senior government civilian in the DoD, I couldn’t help but wonder how such egregious behavior had endured for so long without intervention. Multiple alleged affairs, inappropriate office behavior, habitual lying, and just a general environment of bullying and abuse. I’d seen it all before. Stories of toxic leadership are nothing new, although some are more scandalous than others. As I pondered the absence of oversight and accountability – as leaders, we aren’t always present to personally observe the worst behavior – my jaw dropped over a single statement.

“Employee 1 told investigators that all of the kisses she received from [the senior civilian] were ‘never uncomfortable’ and didn’t ‘feel aggressive or inappropriate or meaningful.’”

All of the kisses? Seriously? I’m sorry, if you’ve got a kissy subordinate working for you, it’s kind of hard to miss. Most of us would recognize that immediately as inappropriate, if not outright red flag behavior. Word gets around fast. But clearly not fast enough, or the behavior was ignored altogether. This behavior continued for at least two years – probably more, if you believe that people don’t really change their habits – followed by a series of Inspector General investigations over two years.

Two years. Let that one sink in. Most people don’t survive a single investigation. This guy survived several. How?

understanding the problem

Before you can answer that question, you first need to have a better understanding of the problem. It’s not uncommon for leadership behavior to be labeled “toxic” when it’s not – anyone who’s had to levy disciplinary action knows this. Sometimes, recognizing the difference between tough love and toxic leadership is a matter of perspective. Just because someone holds you accountable for your behavior or performance doesn’t make them toxic. There’s a fair amount of tough love involved in helping people to be the best – or in some cases the least worst – versions of themselves.

But that’s not always the case. Just as often, what someone professes to be tough love is actually spiteful, vindictive, or altogether abusive. The only love involved is self-love, that deeply narcissistic streak common to all toxic leaders. The signs of toxic leadership are relatively consistent, and typically easy to recognize. Most will point to the negativity spewed by the leader in question, but the signs go much deeper: people are too intimidated to speak up, there’s a broad lack of trust and confidence in the leader, voices are never heard, and people feel unmotivated and undervalued. Put those together, and the problem transcends tough love.

DEFINING THE PROBLEM

Toxic leadership is just a symptom of a much deeper issue. We commit an inordinate amount of effort toward treating the symptom without acknowledging that toxic leaders aren’t the problem; we are. Or, more specifically, our unwillingness to hold them accountable for their actions.

Toxic leaders are creatures of confidence and charisma. They forge a cult of personality, an inner circle of Kool-Aid-drinking sycophants that shields them from the consequences they might face otherwise. They manipulate their inner circle, seducing them through a combination of psychopathy and narcissism that is as intoxicating as it is addictive. Their inner circle is also a line of defense – convenient “fall guys” who serve as a line of defense when accountability comes calling.

However, evading accountability extends well beyond their inner circle. Senior leaders positioned to levy accountability rarely do so, and typically only when their hands are forced. The reasons for this are varied. Sometimes, a senior leader is so disconnected from their subordinate leaders that they simply “don’t see the forest for the trees.” In other cases, senior leaders are seduced – or intimidated – by the same confidence and charisma that allows toxic leaders to manipulate so many others. And in other cases still, senior leaders simply don’t want to rock the boat – they tolerate bad behavior as long as the end results remain positive and productive.

Ultimately, circumstances evolve to the point where burying your head in the sand is no longer an option. As with the case of the senior government civilian mentioned earlier, the situation gets so bad it can no longer be ignored. Senior leaders then pat themselves on the back, telling detailed stories of how they fired one toxic leader or another, all the while washing their hands of the sum total of the destruction left in the wake of those toxic leaders.

SOLVING THE PROBLEM

In the end, the solution is to hold people accountable far earlier. Bad behavior is rarely a new phenomenon: people simply become bolder the longer such behavior goes unpunished. Firing a toxic leader is unfortunately the first and often only visible action ever taken to halt toxic leadership. In truth, reining in toxic leadership should begin early and continue until either behaviors change (for the better) or a shift in career trajectory (e.g., firing) is the only remaining option.

1. Set clear expectations.

The behaviors that characterize toxic leadership evolve over time, but rarely see significant change. Stem those behaviors early on by establishing and holding subordinate leaders to a clear set of standards and performance goals.

2. Provide constructive feedback.

Routine performance counseling is a necessity in any senior-subordinate relationship. When your expectations are met, reinforce those behaviors with positive encouragement. When they don’t, “course correct” behaviors and performance promptly and in as constructive a manner as possible.

3. Hone your people skills.

In many cases, toxic leadership evolves from life experiences that drive destructive behaviors. As a leader, emotional intelligence is a critical skill in managing the wide spectrum of personalities in any organization, but absolutely essential in dealing with – and correcting – the behavioral challenges of toxic leadership.

4. Be the coach.

Once you’ve set things on a positive trajectory toward accountability, break out your inner performance coach. Be supportive, be encouraging, be present in the moment.

5. Hold the line.

Don’t make excuses. Don’t look the other way when you suspect a toxic leader is at work. Hold them to the standards you set and don’t tolerate aberrant and potentially destructive behavior. The short-term cost of firing a toxic leader is always less than the long-term cost of allowing them to lay waste to an organization.

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.